Selsey Lifeboat’s new coxswain was born and bred in the seaside town
PUBLISHED: 17:26 04 August 2020 | UPDATED: 17:26 04 August 2020
Rob Archibald is the new coxswain at Selsey Lifeboat Station and has been helping to save lives with the RNLI for 26 years | Words: Sebastian Oake - Photos: Max Gilligan
Rob Archibald’s new job involves plenty of seaside fresh air, though maybe a little too much of it at times.
Since May he has been coxswain at Selsey Lifeboat Station, responsible for its two lifeboats – a high performance all-weather vessel and an inflatable inshore boat – and often personally leading rescue missions.
The job does not come up very often. The previous coxswain, Martin Rudwick, held the post for 22 years and when he retired had clocked up 47 years of service with the RNLI.
Rob himself has been with the organisation since 1994. Selsey-born and bred, he remembers joining up at the age of just 19.
“At that time the honorary secretary of Selsey Lifeboat Station knew my dad and was looking for crew,” says Rob.
“I had always spent a lot of time around the beach, swimming and diving. I wouldn’t quite say I was told to join but I really wanted to do it anyway – I’d been looking at it for a while. I’d been life-saving with the Royal Life Saving Society and felt as if joining the RNLI was something I should do.”
Rob is able to draw on a wealth of experience in his new role, including mechanical expertise and almost ten years on fishing boats.
He works full-time in the lifeboat station on Selsey seafront and is also a standby helmsman and mechanic for other stations throughout south-east England, able to step in to help crews from Southend round to Swanage.
Throughout his day in the boathouse, and after he has gone home too, he remains conscious that his pager could go off at any time, indicating a fresh emergency out at sea.
“The lifeboat operations manager’s pager goes off first,” explains Rob. “He calls the coastguard and agrees the lifeboat will respond. At the same time, everyone is heading for the boathouse as quickly as possible.
“Hopefully the coastguard is in touch with the casualty and we are able to receive a good briefing as we walk through the door. As coxswain I pick the crew, we get our protective gear on and get going.”
Incredibly the all-weather lifeboat can be in the water just eight to ten minutes after the pagers initially go off. The inshore boat can be launched even faster – in five minutes or fewer.
The smooth operation relies on the input of quite a few people. Including himself, there are 19 lifeboat crew members available to Rob and ten shore crew, nearly all of them volunteers.
The ‘Shannon class’ all-weather lifeboat – named Denise and Eric in honour of two people who made a major donation towards it – needs six crew at a time with three shore-based helpers; the inshore ‘D class’ boat, called Flt Lt John Buckley RAF, requires three crew and two helpers on shore.
As a charity, the RNLI is dependent on the generosity of the public. The services it provides encompass not just the lifeboats but also a seasonal lifeguard service, coastal safety, research and education programmes, and a flood-response role.
The organisation has 238 lifeboat stations around the 19,000-mile coastline of the UK and Ireland with a total fleet of over 400 vessels, including those held in reserve.
As well as at Selsey, here in Sussex there are lifeboats stationed at Littlehampton, Shoreham Harbour, Brighton, Newhaven, Eastbourne, Hastings and Rye Harbour.
Lifeboats do not come cheap. The Flt Lt John Buckley RAF inflatable cost £52,000 while the newer Denise and Eric all-weather boat had a £2.1m price tag. Meanwhile, full protective clothing and equipment costs £2,400 for each crew member.
Altogether, over £160m is needed each year to keep the RNLI ready to respond around the clock. At Selsey, there is a huge army of fundraisers and also staff who run the gift shop at the lifeboat station, again volunteers.
But most people would say it is money well spent. The RNLI’s services remain very much in demand, even in an age of advanced marine technology and precise electronic navigation.
The charity receives an average of 24 call-outs a day. Last year, the Selsey Lifeboat Station went to the aid of 40 people.
The situations vary considerably, involving both those whose lives are under immediate threat and those who are no more than temporarily stranded or inconvenienced but still need assistance.
“We do get dark stormy nights and the severe problems they can lead to,” says Rob, “but the most frequent rescues are to pleasure craft.
“Perhaps there’s an engine failure and a boat is adrift or a yacht coming back from across the Channel hasn’t managed to stay ahead of the weather and the crew have been up all night and become exhausted. They need to be towed in.
“And our inshore lifeboat will be dealing with wind surfers, divers, kayakers and other beach users.”
One call-out that has remained lodged in Rob’s mind took place around a year ago. Seven miles south-east of Selsey, a large motorboat was approaching the Solent when there was a gas explosion in the galley that blew the boat apart and started a catastrophic fire.
The two men on board jumped into the sea, luckily grabbing a radio in the process from which they were able to issue a Mayday distress call.
They then managed to get into their boat’s tender and release it from the burning wreck. One man was suffering from a head injury and serious burns.
Actually the plume of smoke could be easily seen from the shore and the all-weather lifeboat was launched with Rob at the helm. “It was a massive call,” says Rob now. “One man was in a lot of pain but at first we couldn’t find them – the tender had floated off.
“Thankfully we did locate them after a while and rescued them onto the lifeboat. We gave them casualty care, treating the burns and shock as best we could. They were then evacuated from the boat by a coastguard rescue helicopter.
“Both men survived, although one was in hospital for a couple of months. The other guy came down to the station and met the crew to thank them, which was really nice.”
Accidents like that will sadly always happen but some cases where people have got into danger could perhaps have been avoided. “People can set out to sea without needing any sort of qualifications,” says Rob.
“Sometimes they don’t have the necessary skills or experience for the vessel they’re on. Even today, there are people who set off without any life jackets and it’s not uncommon to find someone navigating at sea using an AA road map.
“But we don’t get frustrated. We’re not here to judge anyone, just to give help to those who need it.”
This summer has presented special challenges with crew members having to wear face masks as well as all their other equipment to keep themselves as safe as possible from coronavirus.
Local marinas shutting down during lockdown cut down the number of emergency calls. But now those restrictions have been lifted, “I wouldn’t be surprised if we see a surge in activity in the autumn,” says Rob.
“If the weather stays reasonable, I can imagine the pleasure season will carry on for longer, perhaps through to November.”
If it does, autumnal conditions could bring their own challenges for those keen to make up for time lost this summer.
It will be a comfort for them to know that dedicated people like Rob are on hand, ready to drop everything to help those in need.